The Supply Chain Gap — Is It Our Own Fault?

If you’re in AV, you are most likely facing supply chains problems as you read this.

I have had people reaching out and asking if I knew where they could find a multitude of products, ranging from DSPs with Dante ports to LCD displays to Level 3 Network switches to Video over IP products. A considerable number of the little black boxes we rely on every single day just aren’t available, and our projects are delayed because of it. There are obviously a lot of factors involved, such as a lack of shipping containers, port labor shortages, new restrictions on truck drivers, interstate trucking laws, a worldwide chip shortage and many more.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like we could be to blame for this situation, but could we have been doing more to avoid the impact this has had on us in the long term?

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AV has been an industry known for its affinity for appliances. Think back to products like Mersive Solstice that tried to launch as a software platform and quickly had to pivot and create an appliance as a delivery mechanism for the software to get momentum.

There are a lot of appliances in AV that can be virtualized, but we’ve likely slowed that process down because of our love for the LBB (Little Black Box). QSC started virtualizing their Digital Signal Processor (DSP) on Dell machines a few years ago, and Shure’s Intellimix DSP also embraces software on the PC model. However, these software-based solutions are still few and far between, and hardware-based appliances still outnumber their virtual counterparts. Imagine if your AV systems only needed one set of chips for control, decoding, video extension and signal processing instead of a stack of separate appliances.

Don’t get me wrong; we’re slowly coming around in other areas with cloud-based communication platforms like Teams and Zoom that eliminate codecs. I would argue, though, that this change was not all “our idea,” and in many cases, the consumer had to grab the industry by the bit and pull us along.

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On a slightly different note, our lack of standards has also exacerbated the problem. In a time when major manufacturers have run out of things like AV-over-IP extenders, you think there would be room for another manufacturer with available products to fulfill some of that latent demand. However, in true AV fashion, we have almost made that unachievable.

Many manufacturers have taken “standards-based” transport and customized it for their products, almost assuring that cross-compatibility of devices using the same “standard” is difficult at best or impossible altogether.

Companies wishing to substitute available products for back-ordered ones find themselves in the dilemma of having to redesign the whole system or infrastructure because just swapping out endpoints doesn’t always work well. The end result is some manufacturers are out of items completely, while others have equipment on the shelves. Integrators are usually afraid to mix and match brands and products even if they are based on the same “standard.”

If we really want to become more efficient as an industry moving forward, we need to embrace the idea of virtualizing as much of our hardware as we can and get serious about the standards and cross-compatibility of devices that utilize them.

Sure, we’ll never solve a lack of boats or chips that way, but software ships across the internet, and true standards assure cross-compatibility of devices and brands that would maximize the hardware we do have.